- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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By now we've all heard the story of the running back/fullback from that South Division team who switched over to defense, became a hybrid linebacker and was one of the best in the Pac-12 at getting sacks and tackles for a loss.
UCLA's Anthony Barr, right?
No, the other one. ASU's Carl Bradford.
Oh, you haven't heard this one?
A top-tier fullback out of Norco, Calif., Bradford was recruited by then-coach Dennis Erickson to play defense. It was not a move he reluctantly accepted. It was an opportunity he jumped at.
"It's not too different than being a fullback," Bradford said. "You see a hole and you attack it. It's the same thing as a linebacker. Still hitting. Still finding holes. But you need to have a little more of an edge. You have to have that chip and play angry. You have to love to hit, and I do."
On most teams, Bradford's numbers from 2012 wouldn't be an afterthought. He had 11.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss. But because his teammate, defensive tackle Will Sutton, was so dynamic last year (13 sacks, 23.5 TFLs), Bradford's contributions are often overshadowed. Sutton went on to win the Morris Trophy for the league's top defensive lineman and the Pac-12's Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award, which is of course named in memory of the ASU great.
"That's amazing, isn't it?" noted head coach Todd Graham. "They are as prolific of a tandem as there is out there. He's a phenomenal player. Unblockable. A very special guy with All-American potential. Every day he and Will are talking about which of them is going to win Defensive Player of the Year."
However, Bradford enters the 2013 season with somber inspiration following the death of his father from a heart attack in March -- one week before the Sun Devils opened spring ball. No strangers to tragedy of late -- recall the murder of running back Marion Grice's brother in December -- the Sun Devils have used those tragedies to form a unique bond.
"When Marion's brother passed away, everyone showered him with prayers and open arms," Bradford said. "We were always there for him and he knew what kind of teammates he had. That's the same way I felt when my father passed away. When I came back, all the love from my teammates and roommates -- all the support was amazing. To have teammates and coaches like that was really a blessing when times were hard and I appreciate it so much."
It's a part of the job that can be difficult, Graham admits. In times of tragedy, players look to their coaches for answers.
"We don't always have them," Graham said. "All we can do is be there for them, listen, and try to help them through tough times. We tell them to live each day to the fullest because you're not promised tomorrow. The key to our team is relationships and in times of tragedy those relationships are critical. That's how you form a close-knit team. We've been through a lot in a short time and I've seen the character of this team shine through."
That character will be tested early as the Sun Devils -- who are neck-and-neck with the Bruins as preseason favorites in the South Division -- play a ramped up schedule that includes four straight against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. It's an opportunity for ASU to make a huge splash on the national stage.
"I think we're mature and we have to be mature to handle a schedule like that," Bradford said. "It's going to take a lot of focus and a lot of film work. Our guys have come a long way since last year'. We'll be prepared."
Sutton and Bradford have trained their sites on the school (and NCAA) sack record of 24 in one season, held by Terrell Suggs. (Note: Suggs holds the official NCAA single-season record at 24, though Derrick Thomas had 27 in 1988, prior to the NCAA keeping defensive stats). It's not quite as dramatic as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris racing to 61, but there's no question the two are pushing each other.
"We were joking that we might end up with 50 sacks between the two of us," Bradford said.
Bradford is graded on a different curve that Sutton because of the position he plays. While Sutton put up uncharacteristic stats for a defensive tackle, Bradford is just one of several outstanding outside linebackers/hybrid rush ends in the conference. From Bradford and Barr to Stanford's Trent Murphy and USC's Morgan Breslin, the league isn't lacking guys who can create havoc in the backfield. In 2012, there were only five FBS players who had 80-plus tackles, 10-plus sacks and 20-plus tackles for a loss: Jamie Collins (Southern Miss), Jarvis Jones (Georgia), Damontre Moore (Texas A&M), Barr and Bradford. Only the South Division pair return in 2013. No doubt, the race for the league's defensive player of the year will be hotly contested (not to mention many outstanding defensive linemen, defensive backs and safeties).
Last year was the first time since 1978 that ASU has had two players post 20 or more tackles for a loss and 10-plus sacks in the same season (Al Harris and Bob Kohrs). Only 10 FBS players who tallied 10 or more sacks in 2012 are back in 2013 -- and ASU has two of them. In fact, 51 FBS teams had fewer sacks than Sutton and Bradford combined (24.5).
"I truly don't know how they are going to scheme us," Bradford said. "We have weapons all around the board and all guys are attacking and all guys are playmakers. I feel bad for the offensive lines. They have a whole other thing coming their way this year."